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Vanderbilt's Politically Incorrect Chancellor Bucks the System (Part Two)

September 15, 2002

In my last column (see Archives to re-read the column), I described a major private university chancellor that appears to be bucking the political correctness that is institutionalized on college campuses. That person is Gordon Gee, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University. In fact, I wrote of my belief that Gee is a rarity in college academia, a conservative.

To demonstrate a counter to my belief, some readers sent me a link to a David Horowitz Front Page column describing David's political-correctness-run-amuck visit to Vanderbilt last spring.

I had read that column (or maybe it was one like it) when it first came out last spring. At the time I noticed Horowitz's glaring omission of observing that Vanderbilt, for all the PCness he experienced that day, has kept a tradition that Horowitz criticizes most Ivy League schools for dropping: ROTC. Navy and Army ROTC have thrived on Vanderbilt's campus since WWII. I am a 1975 graduate of Vanderbilt's Navy ROTC. The names of some of the graduates of those programs from the 60's, Horowitz's contemporaries, are on The Wall in Washington, D.C.

Otherwise, I do not doubt the authenticity of his observations. His observations, however, do not alter my belief in Gee's conservatism.
I bet Gee experiences what Horowitz experienced day-to-day. He has a big job ahead of him. He will not change an institutionalized ideology over night. His biggest challenge on campus and in college sports (which I discuss below) will be his effectiveness in implementing real change.

Now on to today's topic: Gee takes on the college "Big Daddy" - sports.

There is little doubt that college football and basketball in NCAA Division 1-A universities are big money makers. There is also little doubt that the student-athletes in those programs are treated like royalty as long they perform and then are thrown overboard like empty soda cans when no longer athletically productive.

USA Today reported last year: "Schools in the six top-tier conferences that form the cornerstone of the Bowl Championship Series do a much poorer job of graduating athletes at the same rate as their non-athletes - the NCAA's benchmark for effectiveness. Using 4-year averages, 50 of the 63 schools show a lower rate for football players than for all men in the student body at those same schools."

Gordon Gee considers these results a disaster for American universities and so has begun to revolutionize the academics of college athletics. Quietly, he has pushed the presidents of the schools that belong to the Southeastern Conference (SEC), arguably, the strongest athletic conference in the country, to move their athletic directors out of SEC decision making positions and move themselves in. That is now completed.

Gee has also come forward with specific proposed reforms:
1. Tie graduation rates to athletic scholarship allocations;
2. Require a core curriculum for all students (i.e., no more Fundamentals of Softball 101 as Gee has stated);
3. Tie conference revenue distributions to graduation rates.

The last one is a big issue. The SEC earned $96 million in revenues last year. Those revenues are split among the conference members. So athletics is big business.

Gee states it is time to "…re-establish the fundamental notion that we are first universities, and the students that come here are first students…". "A university is about bringing students in and graduating them. It is not about bringing them in and entertaining them, or having them entertain us."

Wow, is that blunt talk or what?!

For nearly twenty years, Vanderbilt's sports teams have anchored the cellar in SEC standings. The graduation rate of athletes, however, has consistently been one of the highest in the country; often close to 100%. In addition, after merging with Peabody College for Teachers several years ago, Vanderbilt eliminated traditional athlete curriculum, e.g. a teaching degree in Physical Education. So, granted, this may seem like a feeble attempt to bring SEC sports down to Vanderbilt's level.

But to assume Gee is a private school dandy, would grossly underestimate him. He knows of that which he speaks. He has been president of Ohio State University, University of Colorado, and University of West Virginia: all have highly rated athletic teams year after year.

So keep an eye on Gee. He has opened a two front attack: political correctness on his own campus and the unjustness to student-athletes of big time college athletics in the SEC: the former, a subtle yet persistent assault and the latter a frontal assault. In both cases, he is demanding two things we conservatives hold dear to our hearts: results and accountability. Very politically incorrect if you ask me.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.